For nearly 20 years, Toronto has had a monopoly over professional baseball and basketball in Canada. In baseball, even though they predated the Toronto Blue Jays by nearly a decade, the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington D.C. in 2004, leaving the Jays to claim the title as “Canada’s Team.” And although both basketball franchises began playing in 1995, the Vancouver Grizzlies would move south to Memphis, Tennessee in 2001, while the Toronto Raptors have cried “We the North” straight to a championship.
Despite the marketing efforts to arouse a sense of nationalistic pride around these Toronto-based teams, there are plenty of Vancouverites and Montrealers who long for the days when they truly had a hometown team to support.
Kat Jayme is one of those people. A self-admitted obsessive, Jayme hasn’t let go of her love for the Grizzlies, and if anything, her affection for the franchise has only grown in the 20 years since they left town. And it’s this passion that has led Jayme to The Grizzlie Truth, her feature-film directorial debut that seeks to give fans like her closure as to what exactly happened to the Vancouver Grizzlies.
Born and raised in Vancouver, Jayme was the perfect age for the Grizzlies’ fandom. She is old enough to have appreciated the excitement of going to an NBA game, but young enough not to care that the Grizzlies were on their way to becoming, indisputably, the worst franchise in NBA history. “We were so bad,” Jayme laughs. “But that wasn’t my memory of them. My memory of them was that they were an NBA team and I got to see NBA superstars in my own backyard.”
A quick search of Jayme’s filmography to date will show that her love for the Grizzlies is the real deal. Jayme has directed three shorts about the fallen franchise, each of them unique in telling a different side of the Grizzlies’ story: We the West (2019) finds Jayme reminiscing with other superfans; Born Identities (2021) chronicles the creation of the Grizzlies’ and Raptors’ logos; and in Finding Big Country (2018), Jayme tracks down elusive Grizzlies legend Bryant ‘Big Country’ Reeves.
“Honestly, if people let me, I would continue [to make films about the team],” Jayme muses. “There are so many great stories about the Grizzlies, there was just so much magic there. It’s been a lifelong dream.”
The Grizzlie Truth is a sports whodunit: Who and/or what is to blame for the quick demise of this failed sports team? The Canadian dollar was tanking at the time, fan attendance was poor, and it seemed that once management extinguished one fire, another would spark. Without any prior connections within the NBA, Jayme cold called and emailed former players, management, and media to uncover the truth.
Jayme recalls those early days, trying to get in touch with everyone and anyone involved with the team, “I had 10 seconds to sell myself on the phone: ‘My name is Kat, I’m a childhood fan of the Grizzlies. I wanted to be the first girl to play in the NBA because of the Grizzlies. That never happened and I became a filmmaker. My dream is to tell the story of the Vancouver Grizzlies. Will you help me?’ And luckily, literally everyone that I called said, ‘Yes, how can I help?’”
This perseverance granted Jayme unprecedented access to tell the team’s tale. The Grizzlie Truth includes appearances from many of the central figures of this mystery, including those close to the front office— even Grizzlies Nation Enemy No. 1, Stu Jackson.
In 1994, Jackson was hired as the Grizzlies’ first general manager and during his five-season tenure, the team had a dismal record of 78-300, finishing last in their division four times. For many, Jackson was the primary reason for the team’s failure, and it didn’t help that he inserted himself as head coach partway through the 1996–1997 season (a mistake Jackson holds himself accountable for in the film).
As a diehard fan herself, it would’ve been easy for Jayme to take an accusatory tone with Jackson, confronting him with all of his wrong-doings. But at that stage in the film’s development, Jayme appreciated that the reason for the Grizzlies’ collapse was beyond one person or one issue. “By that time, I had talked to enough people to understand that this story was not what the average fan knows. There’s so much more to what was going on,” Jayme reflects.
Jayme spoke with several key players and draft picks of the Grizzlies, including Shareef Abdur Rahim, Mike Bibby, Shawn Kemp, Antonio Harvey, Byron Scott, and of course, the subject of one of her shorts, ‘Big Country’ Reeves. But her white whale was Steve Francis.
Francis was a highly sought-after college player with the University of Maryland when he was selected second in the 1999 NBA draft by the Grizzlies. Management (and fans) had hoped Francis would be the franchise’s saviour, much like what Vince Carter ended up being for the Raptors. But Francis was vocal about his desire not to play in Vancouver from the beginning. When his trade demands were granted, he quickly drew the ire of Grizzlies nation as he began his career with the Houston Rockets.
Not only did Jayme want Francis to take part in The Grizzlie Truth, given how significant his story is to Grizzlies lore, she also wanted to give him a shot to clear the air. “I got in touch with him two years ago on Instagram,” Jayme shares. “I told him, I’m making a film about the Grizzlies and you’re such a big part of this story, I would love to have your voice in it. I sent him a link to Finding Big Country and he watched it. He said he was interested in being part of the film. So I was like, ‘Yes, we got him.’”
That feeling of success would be short-lived, though. Francis suddenly stopped responding to Jayme’s messages and eventually blocked her on Instagram. “He ghosted me,” she remembers. “I messaged him on another account and sent him so many emails. I can pull up my Instagram messages with him and it will literally all be blue, because it’s just me messaging him.”
However, Jayme isn’t easily discouraged. In The Grizzlie Truth we see her attempt to connect with Francis in spite of him giving her the cold shoulder. She flies to Houston where Francis is at a fan expo signing autographs, and, well, you’ll just have to watch the film to see how that works out.
While the majority of the film’s energies are put towards exploring what happened to the team, The Grizzlie Truth’s heart is found in Jayme’s connection to the subject.
Like many first and second-generation Canadians, Jayme struggled to figure out what it means to be Canadian. Not having a strong connection to the Philippines, the birthplace of her parents, Jayme felt like she was “from two different homes,” and it was basketball and the Grizzlies that helped bridge that gap.
Jayme fell in love with basketball (and discovered she was a pretty good player, too, despite her 5-foot frame!) because of her older brother’s interest in the sport. And when she found out that basketball is the national sport of the Philippines, everything crystallized.
“I remember vividly being so proud and clearly latching onto that. The Grizzlies are a part of my identity and it makes sense, because I’m Filipino-Canadian. Everyone in the Philippines loves basketball and I love basketball,” Jayme explains. “It sounds so simple, but it really helped give me roots in Canada. It helped me feel like I also belonged here and made me proud to be Filipino. It makes sense that I’m this in love with basketball, because it’s just part of my culture.”
And she wasn’t alone in finding her identity through the Grizzlies. Jayme gave other superfans the opportunity to express their love for the team, like Michelle Huang who offered similar sentiments to Jayme in finding a sense of belonging in the Grizzlies after abruptly emigrating from China to Canada as a pre-teen. And Keith Nath, a fan of South Indian heritage, who finally saw himself in the game he loved through Shareef Abdur Rahim, a basketball player with a Muslim name.
Jayme raises a lot of questions and offers up as many answers in The Grizzlie Truth. But perhaps the most natural question following this film is, will Vancouver ever get a basketball team again?
“I do want a team to come to Vancouver, not so much for me but for the younger generation, I feel like they’re missing out. What I love about the Grizzlies is that they showed how much impact a team can have on a city, especially for younger kids,” Jayme laments thoughtfully.
She continues, “The Grizzlies taught me that I could do anything. When I said I wanted to be the first girl to play in the NBA, I really truly believed that. And that sentiment, that feeling that the team gave me, has followed me throughout my career. The Grizzlies, and the Raptors, inspired a generation. And I want that for kids who are growing up in Canada today.”
The Grizzlie Truth premiered at VIFF 2022 and screens at additional festivals throughout the season.